Can Maccabi Tel Aviv be beat?

New playoff format and cash-infused Hapoel Jerusalem threaten perennial champs.

Maceo Baston 298 (photo credit: )
Maceo Baston 298
(photo credit: )
For the first time in over a decade, Maccabi Tel Aviv has a reason to fear for the BSL title. The perennial champs are better than ever and last week's exhibition win over the Toronto Raptors proved that Maccabi is likely the best team in the world not in the NBA. However two factors could still create a situation where firstyear captain Derrick Sharp doesn't lift the championship plate come June. The arrival of new Hapoel Jerusalem president, Russian billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, has seen the capital city hoopsters upgrade their roster to the point where it can potentially compete with the two-time defending Euroleague champs. And a decision by the BSL administration that did away with the traditional best-of-five playoff series in favor of a single-elimination Final Four tournament means that an illtimed injury or one poor shooting night could spell the end of an 11-year yellow-andblue championship streak. While the changes could bring newfound excitement in June, there are plenty of reasons to gear up for the opening tip-offs on Sunday night. This season's BSL rosters boast numerous talents, from college stars in their first trips overseas to accomplished veterans returning to the comfortable confines of their former clubs. Rosters also include players from far-off lands, like Maccabi Tel Aviv shooter Kirk Penney from New Zealand, Bnei Hasharon big man Ousmane Cisse from Mali and Maccabi Givat Shmuel forward Alpha Bangura, who hails from Sierra Leone. Not only are there many players who have NBA dreams and several - Penney and Jerusalem's Horace Jenkins and Tamar Slay - that played there last season, but there is even a relative of an NBA All-Star in Givat Shmuel's Wayne Wallace, whose cousin Ben Wallace stars with the Detroit Pistons. Maccabi Tel Aviv remains the favorite to walk away with the title for the 35th time in 36 seasons, despite the new playoff format and the big-budget Jerusalem side. Maccabi returns four starters from last year's Euroleague champion side and newcomer Will Solomon, who led Jerusalem to its first European title two years ago, has showed so far that he can fill the big shoes of Sarunas Jasikevicius, who has taken his game to the NBA. Tel Aviv has also added forward Sharon Shason, who takes over for captain Gur Shelef (now in Belgium); Penney, who helps fill the void left by Yotam Haplerin (Slovenia) and Nestoras Kommatos and big man Jamie Arnold, who fills Deon Thomas's role. However, Maccabi will be short-handed in domestic competition at the start of the season as Arnold awaits the Israeli citizenship that he has applied for. Moreover, league rules limit each team to four foreign players, meaning that Solomon, Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Nikola Vujcic or Penney will need to sit for each game. Jerusalem has totally revamped its roster with eight new players. Its four foreigners, Jenkins, Roger Mason Jr., Slay and Mario Austin, are each among the highest paid players with the most impressive pedigrees to ever play in Israel - outside Maccabi. Coach Erez Edelstein, who failed in his last attempt to build an alternative to Maccabi in the capital three years ago, used all the resources that Gaydamak gave him to add top-level Israeli talent as well. Edelstein returned Meir Tapiro to Israel after a standout season for French side Nancy, signed center Erez Marckovich, who blossomed under the redheaded coach's tutelage early in his career at Ramat Gan, and took a chance on athletic forward Izik Ohanon, who spent the last three years at St. Louis University. Hapoel will aim to make a splash in the ULEB Cup as well, after failing to get out of the group stage last year. With its roster, expectations are high and anything short of the finals will be seen as a huge disappointment. Ironi Nahariya and Bnei Hasharon are the pre-season favorites to complete the Final Four-some. Although Nahariya made some major changes, bidding farewell to Adrian Pleder, Eric Campbell and Marckovich, their replacements are just as promising. Last season's most improved player, point guard Avi Sukar, will lead the charge, but it is Avi Ashkenazi's frontline that could do most of the damage. Center Otis Hill, who rose to fame at Syracuse University where he helped the team reach the 1996 NCAA final, and power forward Jayson Wells, who finished last season in Jerusalem, combine to give Nahariya strength and speed up front. Swingman Cory Carr, who arrived with Sukar from Ashkelon, is also a key player for the northerners, who don't yet know what to expect from captain Barak Peleg, who missed the summer's Eurobasket in Serbia-Montenegro with injuries. Bnei Hasharon, coached by Ya'acov Geno, an assistant to Pini Gershon last season at Maccabi Tel Aviv, has as promising a lineup as any in the league, but may have the weakest bench. Terrence Rencher, whose European career began with Bnei Herzliya in 1997, returns to the club, which has since merged with Ra'anana and changed its name. The veteran guard has spent most of his career in Italy and Germany. Backcourt mate Cookie Belcher, who also has Italian league experience, is a good and a strong defender. Cisse, drafted by the Denver Nuggets out of high school in 2001, is a work in progress, but could pay major dividends and Nigerian forward Ugonna Onyekwe is another force to be reckoned with. One team that has suffered plenty in the off-season, but has the money put away to bring in a top-caliber big man that could change everything, is Hapoel Tel Aviv. After building the team around Doron Sheffer and openly speaking about its attempts to sign veteran NBA center Vladimir Stephania, coach Effi Birenboim is left with little to start the season. Sheffer retired after pre-season training began, Stephania never came and two more signings were cut, with Ontario Lett released as recently as Friday. Nevertheless, with more than $350,000 available for two more signings and the backcourt of Erez Katz, Marcus Hatten and Jeron Roberts in full swing, the Tel Aviv reds could surprise. The relegation picture is also wide-open. Ramat Hasharon may start the season with the league's weakest roster on paper, but that means little. Center John Oden could be one of the top centers in the league, forward Elad Inbar may surprise many after a poor season last year in Haifa and boss Mickey Berkowitz is notorious for his mid-season acquisitions that shake things up for the better. Maccabi Rishon's season may hinge on the play of point guard John Gilchrist, who is looking to prove himself to scouts who overlooked him in the NBA draft after a solid career at the University of Maryland. Ironi Ramat Gan could be a surprise if Tunji Awojobi, who helped Jerusalem to the ULEB Cup two years ago, and Jason Gardner, a former University of Arizona star, recover from the injuries that ruined their seasons last year in Belgium. Perhaps the team that will be the most fun to watch is Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan, with young talents point guard Yogev Ohayon and power forward Lior Eliyahu being handed key roles. Ultimately, no team can be counted out in this league, which will as usual see players come and go for the first half and see teams rise and fall throughout the year. But the most important question will only be answered in June - can the new rules and Hapoel Jerusalem's new money topple Maccabi Tel Aviv? Only time will tell. On TV: Hapoel Jerusalem vs Ironi Ashkelon (live at 8 p.m. on Sport5).